The Draft Kings

Dustin Pedroia was one of Theo Epstein’s best draft picks during his Red Sox tenure. (via Arturo Pardavila III)

The recent elections of Alan Trammell and Jack Morris to the Baseball Hall of Fame from the Modern Baseball Era ballot bring to light the tremendous 1976 amateur draft of longtime Detroit Tigers general manager Jim Campbell and farm director Bill Lajoie. What often gets overlooked is that Detroit held the No. 2 pick in the draft that year, the result of a depleted roster and legendary players who hung on far too long.

“The Tigers of the early ‘70s were a slowly declining team that benefited from the Orioles’ one-year dip,” says Mark Armour, baseball historian and co-author of In Pursuit of Pennants. “Denny McLain was a big shot in the arm that reversed the tide temporarily in the late ‘60s, but this Tiger team was basically the same for nearly a decade. By 1972 they were old, and their collapse was inevitable without reinforcements. They drafted so poorly in the years prior to this that they had to keep playing Al Kaline and Norm Cash, who were their best hitters in 1972…and also in 1961.”

Detroit’s amateur picks in 1976 often are praised right alongside the Los Angeles Dodgers’ incredible haul from the 1968 draft. The Tigers ultimately came away with Trammell (70.4 in “Future WAR”), Morris (44.1), outfielder Steve Kemp (19.4 in the January phase) and pitcher Dan Petry (17.4), not to mention selecting Ozzie Smith (76.5) in the seventh round, though he did not sign.

L.A. also benefitted from a cozy spot, sitting at the No. 5 slot after a poor 1967 season, choosing Bill Buckner (14.8), Joe Ferguson (21), and Doyle Alexander (35.5), as well as prep star and future major league manager Bobby Valentine, who was actually their first selection. The Dodgers also grabbed Steve Garvey (37.7) and Ron Cey (53.5) with the No. 13 pick in the June secondary phase, in addition to Davey Lopes (42.2) and Geoff Zahn (20.7) with the sixth pick in the supplemental rounds of the January draft. These are considered to be the two greatest baseball drafts in the history of the process.

Now let’s go deeper and explore organizations that discovered value from a lower slot in their respective draft classes. The St. Louis Cardinals came away with Albert Pujols (99.3 Future WAR and counting) in the 13th round, as well as outfielder Coco Crisp (29.1) in the 1999 draft with the No. 18 pick. Baltimore Orioles general manager Hank Peters and his front office drafted Cal Ripken (95.5) and Mike Boddicker (31.8) sitting at No. 22 in the 1978 draft.

Hall of Fame executive Pat Gillick supported his Toronto Blue Jays scouting group at the No. 19 slot by choosing John Olerud (58) and Jeff Kent (55.2) in the 1989 draft, while fellow Hall of fame GM John Schuerholz selected pitchers David Cone (62.5) and Mark Gubicza (38.9) with the No. 22 pick in the 1981 draft. Chicago Cubs GM Dallas Green also chose pitchers, namely Greg Maddux (106.9) and Jamie Moyer (50.4) from the No. 3 slot in 1984, and he followed that up in the ‘85 draft with position players Rafael Palmeiro (71.6) and Mark Grace (46.1), where Grace was selected deep in the 24th round as they held the No. 22 pick.

Which team has accumulated the most “Future WAR” with its draft picks during the draft era while averaging the least advantageous spot on the board? Remarkably, the Boston Red Sox are the only ball club to amass over 2000 Future WAR while averaging the second-lowest picks in the draft. Only the New York Yankees have worked with a lower average pick, and they are 14th in total Future WAR.

Total Future WAR per team
Teams Total Future WAR Avg WAR/Year Years Avg June Draft Slot
BOS 2288.1 43.17 53 18.35
OAK 1976.0 37.28 53 15.17
LAD 1947.9 36.75 53 17.92
NYM 1925.8 36.34 53 12.96
STL 1905.2 35.95 53 16.94
MIN 1897.3 35.80 53 12.64
ANA 1870.3 35.29 53 14.20
ATL 1798.3 33.93 53 15.52
TX 1737.4 32.78 53 13.04
MON/WAS 1734.0 34.68 50 11.84
PITT 1645.3 31.04 53 12.55
CHIC 1631.9 30.79 53 11.49
NYY 1600.9 30.21 53 20.24
CIN 1593.1 30.06 53 14.57
BAL 1591.2 30.02 53 15.54
KC 1590.5 31.81 50 12.86
SF 1589.7 29.99 53 15.60
MIL 1533.9 30.68 50 12.10
PHIL 1417.9 26.75 53 13.56
CHW 1377.4 25.99 53 14.00
DET 1375.1 25.95 53 14.41
CLEV 1364.1 25.74 53 12.83
TOR 1343.3 33.58 40 15.58
SEA 1265.1 31.63 40 11.20
SD 1230.4 24.61 50 10.74
HOU 1211.8 22.86 53 13.19
COL  588.9 22.65 26 12.57
TBR  529.5 25.21 21 12.43
ARI  499.8 23.80 21 15.71
MIA  468.6 18.02 26 13.08

(WAR includes both signed as well as unsigned picks. Even allowing for players unsigned, the Red Sox remain atop this list.)

The New York Mets, while not known in recent years for their draft day acumen, are fourth on this list at 1925.1 Future WAR. Allan Simpson, Baseball America founder and authority on the draft era, as well as author of Baseball America’s Ultimate Draft Book, offers further clarity on the organization’s great run.

The Mets of the early 1980s wanted high school players to help shape their development the way they wanted them to be developed.

The Mets’ brain trust at the time was general manager Frank Cashen, alongside his scouting director, Joe Mcllvaine. Cashen was no stranger to cherry-picking future stars, choosing future Hall of Famer Eddie Murray (68.3 Future WAR) and 1979 Cy Young Award winner Mike Flanagan (26.3) while sitting at the No. 15 pick in the 1973 draft. Cashen made some incredible selections during the 1980s for the Mets–Darryl Strawberry (42) first overall in 1980, their stellar 1982 draft that brought them Dwight Gooden (53.2) with the No. 5 overall pick, fellow high school fireballer Floyd Youmans (6.8), swingman Roger McDowell (10.6), future Astros outfielder Gerald Young (6.0) in later rounds, and southpaw Randy Myers (15.7) in the June secondary phase.

The Mets also selected Palmeiro as a prep star coming from Jackson High School in Miami, whom they couldn’t sign. The previous year, Cashen and Mcllvaine chose University of Texas pitcher Roger Clemens (140.4), who also went back into the amateur pool. The 1984 draft brought future Giants and Diamondbacks star third baseman Matt Williams (46.4), but again, the player walked away unsigned.

During the infamous 1984 draft filled with Olympic Team USA players, the Mets’ front office came close to using their high draft pick on USC first baseman Mark McGwire (62), but the two parties couldn’t come to an agreement. Throughout the organization’s draft history, the Mets chose a number of players they were unable to get under contract, which lowered their “draft yield.”

In the history of the draft, the Mets have been able to sign only 56 percent of the draft picks responsible for that Future WAR (or 1,084 WAR), while the Red Sox have signed 81 percent of theirs, a rather impressive yield. It’s an interesting comparison insofar as certain clubs were able to identify talented players, but does this mean that every late “flyer” pick that actually signed was a brilliant calculation of a given team’s scouting department?

Not always. Bing Devine and the Cardinals’ front office grabbed Keith Hernandez (60) in the 42nd round during the June, 1971 draft after choosing outfielders Larry Herndon (15.2 Future WAR), Jerry Mumphrey (22.2) and Jim Dwyer (6.3) with earlier selections. Great pick, right? Well, Hernandez was a first-round talent thought to be a difficult player who quit his high school team during his senior year after a disagreement with his coach.

“Signability matters,” says Simpson. ”Even Keith Hernandez was still paid a $30,000 bonus after being picked so far down in the draft, which was among the highest paid out that year. He wasn’t a first-rounder, but the Cardinals sure treated him like one.”

So is the amateur draft process simply luck of the draw? Very possibly, but just consider what Red Sox GM Dick O’Connell and head of scouting Neil Mahoney were able to achieve with low draft slots. During the bountiful 1968 draft class, the Red Sox, picking 20th, selected Cecil Cooper (35.8 Future WAR), Ben Oglivie (25), Bill Lee (22.2) and All-star pitcher Lynn McGlothen (14.1.) The following year they found Dwight Evans (66.9) and slick-fielding outfielder Rick Miller (15.9) picking at No. 13.

The 1970 draft brought four-time All-Star Rick Burleson (22.6) at No. 16, superstar and future Hall of Famer Jim Rice (51.8) with the 15th pick in 1971, pitcher Don Aase (15.4) and catcher Ernie Whitt with the 16th pick (18.4) in 1972, five-time All-Star and oft-injured center fielder Fred Lynn (49.3) with the 17th pick in 1973, and 13-year swing man Bob Stanley (27) with the No. 20 pick in 1974.

O’Connell, working alongside longtime Boston executive Haywood Sullivan as scouting director with the untimely death of Mahoney, would be GM for only three more years but pulled off one of the great deep hauls in draft history with high school player Wade Boggs (91.1) in the seventh round at the No. 22 pick, not to mention southpaws Bruce Hurst (32) and 20-game winner John Tudor (34.8).

Through an ugly power struggle, Haywood Sullivan would replace O’Connell as general manager and eventually find gold in the 1983 draft, choosing Clemens with the No. 19 pick. What’s interesting here is that “Rocket” wasn’t even considered at the time to be the best pitcher on his college team’s staff.  Calvin Schiraldi (3.6) was the No. 1 starter for the College World Series champion University of Texas at the time. As an aside, Sullivan also chose Ellis Burks (49.6) in the June secondary phase that same year, albeit with a much higher pick in that short draft.

Sullivan’s successor, Lou Gorman, would find gold in 1989 by selecting both Mo Vaughn (27 Future WAR) and Jeff Bagwell (79.6) while drafting from the No. 23 slot.

Theo Epstein upheld this tradition with key picks during his reign as GM, choosing Jonathan Papelbon (24 Future WAR) at No. 17 in 2003, Dustin Pedroia (52.2 as of 2017) with the 24th pick in 2004, and Jacoby Ellsbury (30.9 and counting), Clay Bucholz (15.5) and Jed Lowrie (12.6, still active) with the 28th pick in ‘05, followed by Josh Reddick (23) during the 17th round in 2006, even grabbing Jackie Bradley Jr. (10.8) and Mookie Betts (24.1) with the 21st pick in the 2011 draft, which currently stands as the highest figure this decade for two or more players with at least double-digit WAR.

An interesting nuance to O’Connell’s reign as the Red Sox GM–no other team from 1966 to 1977 generated as much Future WAR from players that remained on their roster as the Red Sox’s 386. Even the Dodgers, including their epic 1968 Draft, ranked second in Future WAR with 302.

Another point Simpson illustrates in his book relates to certain teams selecting more players than others.

“Boston has always had the money to pay picks. Historically, the Red Sox would draft fewer players. But that doesn’t take away from their overall acumen in picking the right players. That’s their front office not wanting to clutter their farm system with players they don’t believe will make it to the big leagues. You know, sign players for $1,000 just to fill out rosters, and the Red Sox historically haven’t done that, so they’re getting the most bang for their buck.”

Interestingly enough, the Boston Red Sox have also enjoyed the most draft classes in which 14 percent or more of their picks have played in the majors.

Future WAR% drafted per team
Team Years of 14%+ Total Future War From Picks Per Draft Total Draft Years %
Red Sox 37 45 0.82
Padres 33 42 0.79
Rays 10 14 0.71
Senators/Rangers 30 45 0.67
Athletics 29 45 0.64
Angels 29 45 0.64
Giants 29 48 0.60
Tigers 26 45 0.58
Mariners 19 33 0.58
Mets 25 45 0.56
Cardinals 25 45 0.56
D’Backs  7 13 0.54
Yankees 24 45 0.53
Twins 24 45 0.53
Blue Jays 17 33 0.52
Royals 22 42 0.52
Braves 23 45 0.51
Dodgers 23 45 0.51
Indians 22 45 0.49
Astros 22 45 0.49
Orioles 22 45 0.49
Phillies 22 45 0.49
White Sox 21 45 0.47
Cubs 19 45 0.42
Expos/Nats 17 42 0.40
Pirates 18 45 0.40
Pilots/Brewers 16 42 0.38
Reds 17 45 0.38
Rockies  6 18 0.33
Marlins  4 18 0.22

It almost makes perfect sense that the San Diego Padres organization sits right behind Boston in this regard, as most expansion ball clubs and struggling franchises pushed their players quickly through the system. Sometimes this is for the better, like the Padres’ No. 1 pick Dave Winfield (63.8 Future WAR) in 1973, who went on to a Hall of Fame career without ever playing in the minor leagues, or for the worse, like their No. 1 overall pick Dave Roberts (0.4) one year earlier, who went straight to the majors in ’72, bouncing between the big club and Triple-A for a number of seasons and finfing himself out of baseball 11 years later.

The Washington Senators/Texas Rangers franchise also exhibited this kind of behavior with college pitching star Pete Broberg in 1971 and, of course, the well-publicized high school phenom David Clyde two years later in June of 1973.

While O’Donnell oversaw some of the most brilliant draft picks during his time as Boston’s general manager, why didn’t this translate into more division crowns?

“The Red Sox of the 1970s tended to win 85-90 games, with three seasons of 95+, but won just one division,” adds Armour. “Why? Partly bad luck–they lost a division by a half-game, another in a playoff, and another on the final weekend. But O’Connell also made a lot of bad deals. It’s great to come up with Sparky Lyle or Cecil Cooper, but if you can’t recognize the talent on hand you can fritter it away for Danny Cater.”

Legendary Oakland A’s owner Charlie Finley built the core of his dynasty from the first three amateur selection classes. Dodgers scouting director and draft guru Al Campanis developed the longest-running starting infield in history after choosing more than 100 picks over the course of 1968 baseball draft. Jim Campbell re-stocked his depleted farm system from 1974 to 1976 with Lance Parrish, Lou Whitaker, Alan Trammell, Steve Kemp, Dan Petry, Jack Morris and the late Mark “The Bird” Fidrych.

But from 1965 to 2017, from forgotten GM Dick O’Connell and farm director Neil Mahoney to Yale wunderkind Theo Epstein, regardless of losing to Bob Gibson and the Cardinals in Game Seven of the 1967 series, regardless of losing to the Reds in Game Seven of the 1975 Fall Classic, regardless of their regular season collapse during the 1977 pennant race or Bucky Dent’s timely career moment a year later, regardless of “Behind The Bag,” in ’86, and in light of Epstein’s grand achievements this century, the Boston Red Sox are truly the MLB Draft Kings.

References and Resources

• Allan Simpson, Baseball America’s Ultimate Draft Book
• Mark Armour, Daniel R. Levitt, In Pursuit of Pennants

Dave Jordan is the co-author of Fastball John, the memoir written with former National League Rookie Pitcher of the Year John D’Acquisto. Dave is also the founder of Instream Sports, the first athlete-author website. Follow him on Twitter @instreamsports.
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87 Cards
6 years ago

Great data table! I’ve been hoping someone or I would compile it someday.

It supports a few of my hypotheses about how teams historically build.

One of those theories is that the Montreal Expos would score low on this type of measurement and be shorted on the players that they brought into MLB.

By my count, the Expos (I didn’t tally for the Nationals) brought 29 amateur free agents into the minor leagues and onto MLB and added 285 WAR points to MLB. In 35 years in Montreal that averages to 8.1 WAR per-year from the non-draftees.

From 1965 to 1991, Canadian and Caribbean players were not subject to MLB draft Expos’ scouts and scouting directors Mel Didier and Jim Fanning got busy in that market. They pulled in Canadiens Larry Walker (72.6 WAR) and Matt Stairs (14.3), Dominican Republican Vlad Guerrero (59.3 WAR), Colombian Orlando Cabrera (amateur signee in ’93; 21.4 WAR), Venezuelan Andres Galarraga (31.5) and Americans Larry Parrish (15.5) and Jeff Huson (2.3)

Fireball Fred
6 years ago

When it comes to the World Series the Red Sox really did have awful luck. They lost in ’67, ’75, and ’86 before finally winning in ’04 – and in each case faced the best NL team (by record) of the decade. Their cumulative record in these series, against the toughest possible competition, was 13-12, but they were regarded as “losers” for a generation.

Dennis Bedard
6 years ago
Reply to  Fireball Fred

The reason they were regarded as losers was a self inflicted “loser” image that the intellectual vanguard on the other side of the river loved to assign to them to validate their inferiority complex vis a vis New York. Sox fans with a cosmopolitan hue pointed to the Ruth trade as the reason for all of this so called bad luck. Playing the role of lovable underdogs to NY’s roomful of WS trophies that is all caused by a curse gives one a sense of joy that facing reality would never compensate for.

6 years ago
Reply to  Fireball Fred

Being the last team to take advantage of Negro League talent didn’t help their “luck” either.

Pirates Hurdles
6 years ago

Any idea why the 4 expansion franchises come in 30,29,27, and 25th in WAR/year in table 1? Is it harder to draft now than it used to be? I think alot of people think teams are better at drafting now than ever before, but its weird to see the teams with only 20 years doing so poorly on a rate basis.

6 years ago

Higher percentage of active players representing total drafted players probably accounts for some of that

Ryan M
6 years ago

Great article and information.

Only beef, the Oakland A’s are (as is with all of their history, elite) ranked 2nd and 5th on these lists, yet get a mere one sentence write-up, and it is about Charlie Finley.

6 years ago

One interesting mistake/piece of imprecise writing:

“Theo Epstein upheld this tradition with key picks during his reign as GM, choosing Jonathan Papelbon (24 Future WAR) at No. 17 in 2003, Dustin Pedroia (52.2 as of 2017) with the 24th pick in 2004.”

Pedroia of course was drafted in the second round, with the 65th pick overall, after the Red Sox had no first round pick because of a free agent signing.

Possibly what you meant to say was,
“in 2004, when they had but gave up the 24th pick, they drafted Pedroia in the second round, with the 65th pick overall.”

Does this affect the average draft pick stat?

6 years ago

Great info. I had never thought of the Bosox as being at the top of this heap. You didn’t mention the Carlton Fisk pick in 1967. Were O’Connell and Mahoney not there yet? Or did it not fit the narrative of low picks? Either way, he was part of what today would have been dubbed a Core Four (Fisk, Evans, Rice and Lynn).

6 years ago

Great article. 53 years is a long time so hard to draw meaning here. Also development is as important as drafting so I think unsigned should be excluded especially since you get a makeup pick the next year for unsigned players (I Think)

Like to see something like this thats limited to the past 25 years